F1 and America – Alexander Rossi Weighs In
As the title suggests, this is part three (and the last for now) in a series of posts in which I wanted to examine and more fully understand America’s relationship with Formula 1. The first installment was centered on an F1 expert from Europe, James Allen. His insight was surprising at times, also somewhat disheartening, and yet encouraging in regards to where F1 is right now and where it might be heading.
The second post concerned the release of Ron Howard’s F1 movie Rush (the dramatization of the 1976 rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt), the impact it might have on the American public and how that might have transference to today’s F1 series. By the way it was the news of this movie several months ago, which inspired me to address this particular topic to begin with.
It’s my premise that we need a successful American F1 driver in order for the sport to succeed here, and James Allen agreed in his comments. To fully understand our topic it seemed logical to go straight to the only driver that is well on his way to scaling the carbon fiber wall between America and F1, namely Alexander Rossi from Auburn, California, who is a GP2 driver as well as an F1 reserve driver for Caterham. I sent Mr. Rossi a proposal explaining what my intention was and some background information and he graciously agreed to an interview.
In constructing my questions, I was seeking critical analysis from someone who is actually in the eye of the storm and although a few of my questions had a lighter side to them, most were serious and very much to the point. Mr. Rossi answered each and every query with what can only be described as a perspective that combines the intelligence of someone many years past his age, the comprehensiveness of someone who has already given these issues some serious thought, and lastly, a sense of ease and innocence which was a pleasure to read. I got the impression that Alexander Rossi is truly in control of his own destiny, and became his newest fan in the process of this interview.
AF1: Can you recall and tell us about when you first felt that making it to F1 could be a reality?
Rossi: Coming up through the junior levels, you always want to believe that you will be able to accomplish your dream no matter how unrealistic it may seem at the time. However for me, the truly defining moment when I knew that I could reach the pinnacle was after the 2012 Young Driver’s Test in Abu Dhabi with Caterham. The pace and performance was so strong after my time in the car that it gave me the complete confidence to push forward knowing that I would be capable enough to compete in F1.
AF1: Can you for the readers explain how many years of preparation and how much work goes into the decision to race at this level?
Rossi: I guess you could say that for me it has been all my life! The decision to race at this level was instant – that much is certain! If you know you have a goal that you want to achieve and it is realistic and possible, then it’s a very natural process to begin working for that. But in terms of the amount of work and preparation that goes into being a Formula 1 driver? Well, that’s every day of my life and it’s what I am constantly working for. Whether it be physically training, mentally preparing for a practice session, hours helping the team as the driver in the loop simulator…every element is working toward the same goal of being a successful Formula 1 driver.
AF1: What do you like most about F1? What is it about F1 that is so alluring, that makes it that much different from say DTM, Sports Car or Le Mans Prototype racing?
Rossi: Formula 1 is the epitome of motorsports for me – it’s hugely competitive; the fact that there are only 22 seats in the world means that to be there you really have to be at the absolute top of your game and one of the best drivers in the world. Formula 1 is the most technical of all motorsports, with each team having hundreds of people creating and developing each car. That car is given to you, and it is up to you to make the absolute most out of it. You have a huge team of people working around and with you, and your role is to do the best you can. There are challenges at every level of motorsport, however for me, Formula 1 is the most complex and interesting.
I have yet to really address the issue of the post, but don’t worry that is coming. I would however like to point out something we must all know intuitively if you follow F1 but rarely hear or put into context, which is the level of commitment an F1 driver must have to pursue this discipline. The line that stands out for me is“Everyday of my life.” I’m not so sure that we as fans truly understand what top athletes go through to prepare and arrive in their chosen endeavor able to compete at the top.
I wasn’t too sure if my next question was crossing a line or not, but I thought it was important to get Rossi’s opinion on the issue of American drivers, or the lack of them, that make the decision to pursue F1 at the expense of something easier to achieve here in the States.
AF1: Have you turned down opportunities here in the US and in other formulas to pursue the F1 dream and was this a gamble? For example say a chance for a ride in one of Roger Penske IRL car’s came up, but you had to pass due to your goal of securing an F1 seat and now will not have that opportunity again, or at the very least not know if it will come around again?
Rossi: There have been opportunities in America but my goal at the moment is to be a Formula 1 driver. Of course you can never know what will happen in the future and, yes, you may not be offered the same opportunities again, however my whole focus is on becoming a Formula 1 driver and I’m in a very good position to achieve that. When you have dedicated your life to achieving something, every ounce of your being strives to make that goal, and anything other than that is simply not an option.
Rossi’s answer is very compelling and I can’t help but think again of the incredible commitment this young man has made to the goal of driving in F1. James Allen also mentioned how difficult the route to F1 is for an American driver. I wonder, if more drivers had Rossi’s determination would there be more drivers in his position?
AF1: What has been your experience as a driver when you mention or explain to an American that you compete in GP2 and reserve drive for one of the 11 F1 teams?
Rossi: I have an incredible following back in America and the people who support me truly mean the world to me. Of course it’s natural for people to question why I’m not in Indycar or NASCAR, as it’s often much more well known in the USA, however I feel most people understand Formula 1, particularly with the new presence in Austin for the USA Grand Prix. As time goes on, more and more people are becoming aware and developing a love of Formula 1 and that can only be a good thing for motorsport in America. We are well established in our NASCAR and Indycar series, why not break into motorsport globally and make a name for ourselves in Formula 1? To have a circuit in Austin is a significant step to doing that, and having an American driver in Formula 1, who people can support and get behind, I believe it is the next big step forward.
If I was slightly broken-hearted by some of the replies from James Allen in part one of this series, then to read these simple lines from an American F1 driver who has first hand experience left me feeling the complete opposite–inspired and elated.
AF1: What is your favorite F1 track as a driver? What is your favorite F1 track as a spectator?
Rossi: I love Spa to drive – it’s a classic, and you know if you do well there, you can do well almost anywhere. It’s a seriously challenging track, and one that all the great Formula 1 drivers have driven, so there is something very humbling about it. I was very happy with the podium result there this year, and it’s hard to describe but there’s a certain magic about the track. As a spectator I really enjoy Suzuka because of how many fans attend. The Japanese fans completely transform the entire Formula 1 experience.
AF1: Do you model your driving after any particular driver and/or is there a driver that inspired you to try to drive in Formula 1?
Rossi: My driving style is something very natural to me and I don’t consciously imitate anyone. For me it’s all about finding the limits of what’s possible, both for you and the machine, and while it’s hard to explain, it’s the almost innate, subconscious reaction and flow of the circuit and the context around you when you’re in the car.
I have to say, this answer for me this was one of the highlights of the interview. Rossi could have easily mentioned a past great or current great driver, but he didn’t. I was equally amazed that instead of mentioning one of many styles of driving that usually concerns the entry point of a turn, the speed you carry into that turn and whether a driver uses the front or rear end to exit the turn, Rossi’s answer was much more telling. Starting with, “I don’t consciously imitate anyone,” and continuing through, “its the almost innate, subconscious reaction…” Brilliant.
AF1: How did it feel going back to Montreal this year, where you have won before, but this time in F1 machinery? It might have been slightly disappointing due to the conditions on Friday, but can you give us an idea of what it was like to be in an F1 car at one of the sport’s most enduring circuits, something that many people, drivers or fans can only dream about?
Rossi: Montreal was a big step forward for me. I’ve driven a Formula 1 car quite a few times now, but this time it was in totally new conditions and in front of effectively my home crowd in North America. Every time I step into the Formula 1 car, it’s a learning and an experience, but the wet conditions and the added pressure of driving during a live race weekend meant that it was very special for me. One skill I’ve developed over the years is to be able to focus completely and not let external factors dilute the job that I have to do. Last year for example, I drove in Barcelona free practice alongside Michael Schumacher in his Mercedes. If you stop and think about it, that’s an enormously big deal, particularly as I wasn’t even born when he started driving! But it’s another good day at work for me, and it’s what I live to do. The experience in Montreal was extremely positive, I think both the team and I learned plenty from the session, and to be honest I just didn’t want it to end!
Up to this point I had been dancing around the subject matter, my feeling was I didn’t want Mr. Rossi to feel like some lab experiment, he is after all a talented competitive driver who just happens to be an American. But it was time to get down to business, and for the second half of my interview, these questions were as probing as I thought necessary regarding on my main topic. Mr. Rossi met each and every one head on.
AF1: What is the general feeling about F1 amongst young American drivers at the beginning of their careers? What I mean by this is, do American drivers feel that F1 is reachable or do they more commonly focus on a career in America and consider F1 only under certain circumstances?
Rossi: I think there is a big challenge for young drivers in America when it comes to the European racing series – Formula 1 is certainly not as well established in the USA as the existing American formulas, and I think the chance of success is much smaller perhaps than in other series. For me, that didn’t put me off at all – rather it fuelled me to do better and achieve more and get as noticed as possible, hard as it is! Another challenge is that no driver came straight from America to Formula 1. The way to do it is to go into the feeder series – something pretty much all F1 drivers today have done for many years – and then work your way slowly but surely up. There is a very different way of doing things in Formula 1 to any other series, and the only way you have a chance of success within the sport is by working hard through each stepping series and achieving each goal, step by step.
AF1: As much as you can know, what is the feeling of your teammates and others in the sport when you are in the paddock on race weekend in regards to an American that has a genuine chance at making the grid in the near future? Are they, as we are led to believe, excited that an American is here in F1 because it means the market might open up more for F1 in the States?
Rossi: The nature of Formula 1 is that as drivers, we are often very insular when it comes to things like that. From what I understand, most of the other F1 drivers like Austin and enjoy racing in America, however to have an American on the grid would make no personal difference to them at all. For other people in the paddock, I think people see there is an opportunity to reach America through the sport and broaden its horizons and the perception of Formula 1 in America. It’s an exciting time for any business that wants a global audience to be involved with the sport, whether that be through the race in Austin, or through me as an upcoming driver.
In hindsight I feel I could have reworked this question to be more specific, but it does give you an insight as to how F1 drivers operate at the highest level of motorsport. Rossi does however mention yet another positive for F1 and America, that the global business world wants to cash in on the American markets. This can only be looked at as promising.
AF1: There must be some amount of pressure on you being the only American driver in the sport so close to a real drive. F1, the teams, the sponsors, the media, and the fans, we all want someone of your caliber and origin to succeed on so many levels. Does this help you or is it a distraction?
Rossi: I think this touches upon the question before, whereby for me it is the most natural thing in the world. I have spent my life working to achieve this goal, and now realizing it, and therefore the pressure is something that fuels me. To be this close to a Formula 1 seat and to have this amount of support means that I am in a very real position of achieving it, and to have people willing me to make it is a huge boost.
I like this response for no other reason that when an athlete, any athlete, says they eat pressure for breakfast, you know they are the real deal. If anyone has read even a few of my posts then they already know this quality, in my opinion, is not the only one, but one of the most critical in an F1 driver. In my opinion it is what makes drivers so different from you and me, and it is also what makes drivers so wonderful to watch while in the car, and in the context of F1, what is so compelling about the sport, which must be one of the most pressure-filled manners of competition.
AF1: I posed this question to James Allen as well, but would like your take on it. Americans love cars and Americans love technology and are often at the forefront of it with Apple, Blackberry, Facebook, Instagram, Tesla, and many other high-tech companies successful here. What is the missing link that Americans are not already super-fans of the most high-tech kind of driving there is?
Rossi: You are correct, Americans love cars and technology. I have found that Americans and American companies that get exposed to F1 get the bug for it. From an American corporate perspective now is the time to get involved in F1. The sport is growing globally each year and my time to be in an F1 race seat is drawing closer. In addition we now have the USGP back in Austin with a New Jersey street course slated on the calendar for 2014 and I hear there are talks of Long Beach back for 2015. It is important for F1 to have this presence in the States; it is a large country with many choices of sports for Americans to spend their time. More U.S. races coupled with an American driver(s) to support is also vital to increase market share, growing TV numbers in the states and more corporate participation. The timing now is perfect for my arrival to F1 to support the growing demand in the States.
AF1: In your opinion, why is it so rare for American drivers to make it to F1?
Rossi: I would say the physical distance is quite a challenge. I moved to Europe when I was younger, and was lucky enough to live in Italy for a while. I’ve been blessed with some fantastic sponsors and backing throughout my career and there have been many people who have supported me to become a Formula 1 driver. There is such a high influx of young drivers in Europe, that to cut it there and to make it is a huge achievement. I think in America, the natural progression for a young driver would be to move up to Indycar or NASCAR – it’s what you’ve grown up on – but as Formula 1 becomes more prominent in America, and particularly if there is a successful driver that people can get behind and support, then I would hope to see many more young upcoming American drivers.
We can only hope…
AF1: If I have my facts correct, after competing in Formula BMW here in the States, you then raced in the same series in Europe. Was this the first time that you raced in Europe? What was the transition like and what did you see/discover that the Europeans do differently in regards to getting their young drivers up to speed?
Rossi: I actually finished racing in Formula BMW in 2008 and the first championship that I competed in overseas was International Formula Master. The transition was quite extreme to be honest as I was blown away with how aggressive the standard of driving was even for a position that wasn’t in the points. To gain respect in Europe you have to earn it and the easiest way to do that is by getting results.
All right we are in the home stretch and the next set of questions could be considered the most invasive for lack of another word. I planned the arc of my questioning very carefully, and I was saving the most important ones for the end albeit I did finish off with a not so serious one.
AF1: In your opinion what does America lack in regards to its young drivers and the preparation that is needed to race in F1. Do you think this has always been the case and why have you been able to succeed where others have failed? Irrespective of your raw speed and race craft, what did you do differently?
Rossi: American drivers do not lack anything terms of dedication, ability and talent. There is a massive process when making the leap to race in Europe from North America. There are many differences culturally and how a driver is viewed, both by his competitors and other teams. It takes a long time for the European racing community to respect foreigners coming over to race. You must be competitive, win races and be at the sharp end often, but this is true for everyone not just Americans. Where is it harder these days for young Americans is the actual cost to race in Europe with our dollar not going as far. A driver must have a substantial budget to build their resume over several years, while building on strong results and more sponsorship. You cannot go to Europe and race with the expectations that you will get it done in year 1 or even 2. There are so many other areas than race results that a driver needs to understand how to perform off track as well and relate with the different cultures.
This could be the most important question and answer of the entire interview. I think among the fans here in America who do follow F1, there is this unspoken feeling that American drivers cannot drive at the same level as their European counterparts. I must confess that I too share this opinion at times, that someone of Rossi’s caliber is not the norm. That is why when an American does exhibit the kind of talent, drive, and intelligence that is needed to actually knock on F1’s door, it is a big deal indeed.
However, Mr. Rossi says differently and I for one welcome the fact that many of us race fans have got it wrong. According to someone that would actually know, American drivers do possess the talent. Referring to an earlier question and answer I am beginning to think it is not so much a question of talent as it is a question of the number of American drivers who are prepared to take the necessary long path through Europe resulting in an opportunity to showcase their talent to the teams that are sending drivers to test for a F1 seat.
AF1: As far as the junior formulas in America, what can we do differently here to ensure we can produce more drivers like you, more Alexander Rossi’s?
Rossi: Ha-ha! I don’t know whether we should have any mini-me’s! I think the fundamental key is to drive and to showcase talent. When you get noticed you can be backed and supported and the best piece of advice I would give is to have a clear goal. If your whole dream is to be in Formula 1 then work your way up through the single-seaters carefully, picking your series and starting low. If you want to be in NASCAR, then there’s a different route to take, but the bottom line is choose the path you take. Things don’t always go to plan, but to have a wide range of series is definitely a positive for America. Another thing is having a driver to support in various formulas – Americans love to get behind a personality and have someone to support and root for. Obviously we have that in all of the America series, however let’s open that up to the world and show them that we can achieve great things in global sports.
Asking this next question also caused me some apprehension, but I felt it would be disingenuous to all involved especially to the subject matter and certainly to the readers if there was not mention of the last American driver to have a crack at F1’s wheel of fortune.
AF1: Scott Speed also made it to F1 albeit via the Red Bull driver’s program. His time in F1 did not last that long and definitely not long enough for it to impact the American motor racing fan base. His is a cautionary tale of how F1 can be very brutal, not just for an American but also for all new drivers. How important is it for you to enter this sport with the right team under the right circumstances?
Rossi: This is exactly right and my aim is to make a significant impact in Formula 1. I feel that my story so far has been created in the right way; I’m part of an F1 team as a reserve driver, and am not rushing into a full time F1 seat. I understand that to impress and develop, you need time and a careful path to the right seat. Formula 1 is so tough – as I mentioned before there are just twenty-two seats available in the whole world and so you need to be very sure about making the right decisions in your career. My aim is not to be around for just one year, but many years, and to be as successful as I possibly can.
AF1: Lastly, will we get to see you in a Friday drive in any of the upcoming F1 races in the last half of the 2013 season? What determines whether you get to drive on Friday? Does geography play a part in that decision, i.e. North American track, American driver?
Rossi: Geography does play a part in this at times, but it’s certainly not a main factor with a team. I will be in the F1 car again very soon, but keep an eye on my Official Facebook page (Facebook.com/AlexanderRossiOfficial) for announcements!
So there you have it. What I would call a candid interview with an American driver who has a real shot at an F1 drive and accomplishing something special in this most difficult of all formulas for the American audience. His comments are insightful and help us understand the F1/America riddle a little better.
My thanks to Alexander Rossi’s organization who were supportive from the moment I contacted them. The simple fact that I was allowed to present questions unedited speaks volumes to Rossi and his people, and allowed a very insightful look into his experience and his perspective on one of the most complex sports currently being contested.
It has been an honor to interview such a talent and enjoy something that fans of any sport live for–an honest moment when one can make a connection and relate to the personalities that inspire us through their actions, deeds, failures and triumphs. Thank you Alex for sharing your insight and your passion that is F1.
-jp- (and from now on it is the guy from Spain AND the guy from America who I will by shamelessly supporting via this blog…)